Saturday, April 12, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Poetic Form as Forms of Meaning: Base Material and the Signet of Form in John Seed’s Pictures from Mayhew

(This paper was delivered at the Poetic and the Unpoetic conference in Amsterdam a few years ago, but has been worked up since. The first four paragraphs represent a fair paraphrase of the argument of my on-going work on poetic form.)

The borders between the poetic and the non-poetic are permeable, particularly across time. Perhaps what is regarded as the non-poetic is in some sense the not-yet-poetic (or the no-longer poetic in the case of outmoded or rejected poetic devices). A poet like Jeff Hilson regards the importation of deliberately bad writing into the saintly portal of the sonnet as the deliberate assimilation of the non-poetic, but all poetry necessarily feeds off of the non-poetic for its life. The passage from matter to form, which Schiller regarded as one of the fundamentals of an aesthetic education, drags novel matter into the life of forms. I am going to initially identify the poetic with medium, with artifice and form, and the non-poetic or extra-poetic with message, quotation, semantic content, in the full knowledge that this distinction is not one I will ultimately acknowledge, and isn’t so in this critical work into formally investigative poetry. Poetry, under this sign, is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form. However, holding form and content, the poetic and the non- or extra- poetic, apart will ultimately demonstrate how these terms elide. Susan J. Wolfson says that in any case some readers ‘respond to forms as a kind of content’ (Rawes 2007: 214), and Derek Attridge says that ‘Meaning is … something already taken up within form; forms are made out of meanings quite as much as they are made out of sound and shapes.’ (Attridge 2004: 114)
Form as a set of identifiable poetic devices – enjambment say, or any other specific feature of artifice – causes or at least incites aesthetic encounter, to use Peter de Bolla’s term. Form thus becomes conceived as force, something that happens, and happens to readers and listeners, a dynamic energy even (as aesthetics since Schiller has consistently contended). Rather than conceiving of form as static or as a parcel of devices, Attridge theorises it as a singularity. ‘Form,’ he argues in The Singularity of Literature, ‘needs to be understood verbally – as ‘taking form” of “forming”, or even “loosing form”’ (Attridge 2004: 113). I favour (as shorthand) his middle term forming while contrasting and combining that with ‘form’ as poetic device or, as I prefer to say, forms. Any discussion of events of readerly forming must be contingent upon identifiable elements of poetic artifice, or forms.
I bring to my readings the work of the recent critics of form mentioned above but cannot avoid procrustean summaries of their rich thinking on this brief skirmish across the borders between poetry and the non-poetic in the knowledge that readers for form, as Wolfson says, are aware ‘that the forms of our attention will persist in ceaseless, lively transformations’. (Wolfson and Brown 2006: 23-4) I will have to put to one side the implication here that encounter will be multi-systemic, different for each person, each encounter a singularity. To bring some rest to this sense of animate, even cognitive, form, one must fix one’s position for the duration.
If apprehension of form is not, or not only, a matter of collecting the devices of poetic artifice, of forms, but a question of entering into the process by which the text finds form in our reading, as forming, there can be, strictly, no paraphrase; indeed, paraphrase, a mode by which meaning is supposedly skimmed off the surface of reading as a residue or even an essence, is to escape from the realm of poetry into the non- or extra- poetic, but is a violation of the processes so far outlined. As Attridge attests, even if we preserve a minute trace of the form of a poem – some sense of its devicehood – we are still remembering the poem as a poetic form. Paraphrase is amnesia of form.(See here for more on form as a splinter.)
These contentions and conjectures are put to the test by found texts and other framing or quoting devices which take their content (whole or in part) from other sources, but which involve considerable artifice. As Bob Cobbing reminds us somewhere: ‘All found poems are treated poems.’ Content (at least in the sense of material) is clearly identifiable and the artifice (both as forms and forming) can be apprehended in particular isolation. It would be easier to quote than to paraphrase. The adventure of the interinanimation and resistances of the poetic and the non-poetic is specifically played out at the level of form; forms of meaning and the meanings made by form are equally revealed.
John Seed is a British poet born in 1950 whose work holds to the American aesthetic of Objectivism, derived largely from the thinking of Louis Zukofsky, who (influenced himself by the dynamic example of William Carlos Williams) posited a robust post-Imagist poetics in the 1930s, believing that ‘poems are only acts upon particulars’ that ‘become particulars themselves’ through rigorous poesis. (Zukofsky 1981: 18) ‘The more precise the writing the purer the poetry’, he asserted, holding textual condensation and free verse derived from Imagism as near axiomatic. (Zukofsky 1981: 15) Objectivism ‘is thinking “with” things rather than “about” things,’ as Tim Woods rephrases Zukofsky. (Woods 2002: 22) ‘Particulars’ also suggests the focus of left-wing politics in contrast to the authoritarianism of Pound’s ‘overlooking’ of historical particulars, such as ‘the hell of Belsen’. (Zukofsky 1981: 166) Sincerity is only possible if matched by technique, by attention to acts of form. Through the example and presence of the British objectivist Basil Bunting in the North East of England (where Seed grew up) British poets from Tom Pickard to Richard Caddell (Seed’s publisher and a Director of the Basil Bunting Centre at Durham University by the time of his death) joined Seed in an interest in this grouping, particularly as they re-emerged from silence, obscurity and neglect from the mid-1960s onwards. Seed avoids the notational absorption in perception found in some British objectivists by maintaining a conceptually acute practice, partly through the influence of objectivist George Oppen, to whom he wrote a hailing poem from Manchester: ‘this city has its beggars too’, a bitter line which serves to flag up Seed’s interest in the urban and possibly his commitments to Marxism. (See his prose volume Marx: A Guide for the Perplexed.) (Seed 2005a: 43). Sometimes seen as allied to the Cambridge poets, via friendship with Andrew Crozier, a fine British poet who re-discovered the objectivist poet Carl Rakosi, this led to his inclusion in the ‘Cambridge’ anthology A Various Art in 1988, co-edited by Crozier. (He re-appears in Iain Sinclair’s compendious anthology London: City of Disappearances in 2006.) A peripheral member of the London poetry scene sometimes called linguistically innovative, he has lived in London since 1983 and has increasingly written of its history, particularly in his crowning poetic achievements, the lyric sequence ‘Divided into One’ (2004) in his New and Collected Poems (2005), and the two volumes: Pictures from Mayhew (2005) and That Barrikins – Pictures from Mayhew II (2007). If earlier work owes to Oppen then the ‘Mayhew Books’ owe to another objectivist, Charles Reznikoff, whose volumes Testimony (1965) and Holocaust (1975) use legal documents from American courts and from the trials of Nazis, respectively. Reznikoff was trained but never practised as a lawyer. Seed has been a social historian since the 1970s; he was allied to the ‘history from below’ movement of that decade that followed the rich example of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and recalls: ‘The duty of the socialist historian was to bring alive the experiences and the consciousness of working people in the past, to retrieve an alternative people’s history and an alternative cultural tradition.’ (Marx: 68) In a different tradition, Walter Benjamin remarked: ‘To write history means giving dates their physiognomy.’ (Arcades p. 476). This is a useful way to conceptualise the impulse behind the ‘Mayhew’ project, which is analogous (not identical) to the work of Reznikoff. In terms of the theme of this study, both writers are in essence framing selected parts of pre-existing non-poetic documents as found texts and making them poetry through formal manipulation, one set of particulars into another. In a different context Zukofsky spoke of ‘The base matter … which must receive the signet of the form’ (p. 18), which expresses the process precisely. 
            The non-poetic base matter of  Testimony are legal documents presenting evidence in a variety of cases that paint a picture of ‘The United States 1885-1890’ – the subtitle of the 1965 volume – as a violent, negligent and disputatious society. This material gave a new gloss to ‘objectivist’: ‘With respect to the subject matter in verse and the use of the term ‘objectivist’ and ‘objectivism’, let me again refer to the rules with respect to testimony in a court of law,’ Reznikoff explains. ‘Evidence to be admissible in a trial cannot state conclusions of fact: it must state the facts themselves.’ (Bernstein 1999: 215) The almost accidental effect of this for Reznikoff’s readers is that they – like a jury – must draw conclusions from particulars. For example in a poem describing the moments after a child’s birth, when ‘he’ (presumably the father) ‘took it out of the room,/ and she could hear the splashing of the water’, we are not told he is drowning it. When ‘he’ returns ‘and put the child into the fire’ we are not told why, and his attendant ‘smile’ is left to the readers’ interpretations. (Reznikoff 1965: 13)
The third subtitle of Testimony is ‘recitative’: ‘a style of song resembling speech’ (although ‘recitation’ is US English for a lesson, and should be heard there as connotation). It is a slightly inappropriate term for the stilted language of the court room, and the sanitised reported and direct speech of the court reports upon which the poems are based. ‘Out there – in the water,’ the father is quoted as saying, after removing the child in my example above. ‘O John, don’t,’ cries the mother as the corpse is thrown into the fire. (Reznikoff 1965: 13) The chief determinant of the poetic here is enjambment, but many of the lines in the work are phrasal, with the occasional dramatic lineation, borrowed from William Carlos Williams’ practice, as when a man ‘slipped/ and fell’ from a moving train (a shockingly frequent occurrence in the book). (Reznikoff 1965: 24)
Framing (selection) and recasting (lineating) are the chief modes of artifice, of formal manipulation, of Seed’s work too, but they operate differently to Reznikoff, according to differences in base material and in poetics. The Mayhew books use as material the voluminous journalistic works of Henry Mayhew, which he published in his own newspaper and collected in four volumes, London Labour and the London Poor, between 1851-1862. They are lively witness reports of the trials, tribulations, and occasional joys of the Victorian underclass, that body near-synonymous with the ‘unemployed reserve army of workers’ which Engels describes: ‘which keeps body and soul together by begging, stealing, street-sweeping, collecting manure, pushing hand-carts, driving donkeys, peddling’, and comments: ‘It is astonishing in what devices this “surplus population” takes refuge.’ (quoted in Seed 2010: 119) But whereas Marx and Engels fed off government reports and statistics to isolate the structural position of this group as vital to the operations of capital, Mayhew never theorised, but relied upon his own witness reports and the testimony of the poor themselves. Most remarkably he relied upon the skill of stenographers or shorthand experts to report – or rather, repeat – the spoken words, pronunciation and even the inflections of the interviewees. Although stenographers would have been used in compiling the formal court proceedings Reznikoff used, Seed’s poems outstrip Reznikoff in the representation of the demotic, and eschew testimonial factualism; his poems only report the speech of Mayhew’s interviewees (speaking in less formal surroundings than a court room). (This is not to deny that the interviewees are cognisant of speaking to ‘Sir’ and would not have spoken unguardedly, particularly about their ‘astonishing’ illegal activities.1) Seed also employs more violent and foregrounded enjambments and removes punctuation completely so that the representational aspect of the work is countered by the artifice, content clashing with form, the non-poetic uneasily accommodated within the poetic structure so that readers never forget that they are reading a poem. Seed himself speaks of loosening syntax, grammar, restoring an artifice of speech as counters of authenticity and re-construction ‘to bring alive the experiences’: ‘My work of reading/writing was partly about undoing Mayhew’s own work of rewriting and perhaps getting closer to his listening and recording’ (Seed 2007: 155) but he additionally ‘wanted the form to slow down the reader’ to defamiliarise the reading experience and foreground artifice or ‘play’ (Seed 2007: 155), by the use of word count, verse forms, and the inescapable ‘visible form on white paper’ (Seed 2007: 156). Where Reznikoff chops prose into line lengths, Seed revoices the material through formal investigation. They are after all ‘pictures’ (like Williams’ sequence from Breughel, to which Seed alludes in his title) not voices.
            Volume one of Seed’s ‘Mayhew’ carries 58, volume two, 59, sections, each roughly divided into category of speaker, by trade, occupation or subject matter. Reading the poems is cumulative, slightly hypnotic; they feel choral, polyphonic, rather than lyric, as we encounter the series of vendors of game, poultry or fish, flower-girls, ballad singers and other street entertainers, itinerant labourers, booksellers; sometimes they are simply the poor, genteel or otherwise, their voices isolated on the page, lamenting lost opportunity or the precarious situation of belonging to capital’s reserve labour pool. There is no typical poem (Seed avoided ‘slipping into a single method’ (Seed 2007: 156)) but in some the poetic is located in the poignancy of content, as when a former Roman Catholic regrets her non-attendance at church:
            seems like mocking going to chapel
            when you’re grumbling in your soul (Seed 2007: 33)

In the last poem of the second volume rigorous de-contextualisation operates to produce an effect of allegory when an unnamed visitor (‘a reduced gentleman/perhaps’) to the unidentified speaker is described as appearing only ‘after dusk//or else on bad dark days’. (Seed 2007: 153) (This echoes the night motif found in many of Seed’s poems.) Even this affective framing is the result of formal isolation and quotation but Seed’s greatest effects are when he achieves a formal tension between the poetic and non-poetic, where devices hold in suspension a readerly desire for authenticity or presence against an aesthetic and therefore pleasurable encounter with distanciating forms. The poems’ forms are calling us to form the voices themselves – this is forming – from fragmented written traces, as in the twin prefaces to the first volume, both of which position the reader as Mayhew himself. In one we are assured:

            if you was to go to
            the raffle tonight sir they’d say
            directly you come in who’s this
            here swell what’s he want they’d
            think you were a cad or
            spy come from the police but
            they’d treat you civilly some would
            fancy you was a fast kind
            of a gentleman come there for
            a lark but you need have
            no fear though the pink pots
            does fly about sometimes (Seed 2005b: 7)

The voice carries across the lines but syntactic closure collides with the isolated end-words (six to a line, an artifice that causes the collisions), and voice recognition falters as the eye reconnects with the form and links the poem together again; the hinging ‘some would’ hangs between two syntactic possibilities. We are forced by the form to remake this peopled moment as a visible voice, as it were, hanging halfway between something we think we can hear and something that is patterned upon the page artificially. The second preface is the response of a publican who indeed thinks ‘Who’s this here swell?’ of the Mayhew figure, and the beer pots do threaten to ‘fly’:

            I know who you are well enough

            take you for?               why
            for a bloody
            spy you

            here from the Secretary of
            State you know you do

            to see
            how many men I’ve got in the
            house & what kind they are by

God if you ain’t soon mizzled I’ll
crack your bloody skull open for you (Seed 2005b: 8)

Isoverbalism is dropped here in favour of spatial arrangement, composition by field. The voice hangs on the page hooked to the line breaks and between interrogative gaps. The euphoriant, barely contained, outrage is chopped like a live eel into flexing segments. Again voice is visible, but broken at its most emphatic moments (‘by/God’; ‘I’ll/ crack’) into lines running against the intuition of oral delivery, making its form with meanings, and meanings that present the threat of the content as something to be made in the difficulty of our aesthetic encounter. (We hardly need to know that ‘mizzle’ is slang: to disappear suddenly.) As Wolfson says we may respond to forms as kinds of meaning, and the form here is declaring the testimony artificial. In Seed’s ‘Mayhew’ project, quotation of the non-poetic de-formed and re-formed by selection and lineated arrangement into poetic structures, operates a knowing ventriloquial trick as we imagine we hear the voices of the (almost) forgotten of history, recovered by Seed from Mayhew’s commentary.2 Seed brings the voices alive only as form. But whenever we feel we apprehend the voice, hear it with our inner ear, the eye brings us back to the materiality of the page, the formal pull against the historical particulars. This is essentially the act of forming: the text is transformed into visible voice as we make it in our aesthetic encounter with its form. The resistance to our drive to authenticity matches the tension between the recuperative historian and the distanciating poet in Seed himself. The poetic – to remember the origins of the word as ‘making’ – pulls the non-poetic into its dynamic force-field.

 John Seed reading at the Poetry Buzz, London, 2005

Read new work by John Seed here

See how this fits into my The Meaning of Form project by following the links provided here.

And some further posts on Seed's work here and here and here.

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

1. This sense of audience worked both ways. Chesney points out, after quoting a long and detailed account of rat fighting in his The Victorian Underworld, that Mayhew omits from his account the betting on the fights that must have occurred, out of respect, as it were, for the illegality of the act.

2. Seed makes use some of Mayhew’s commentary (which he places in distinguishing italics) but it provides the least effective lines and feels obtrusive to the poignant and formal isolation of the singular voices.

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Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. tr. Eiland, Howard, and McLaughlin, Kevin, ed. Tiedemann, Rolf. Cambridge, Mass, and London: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Bernstein, Charles. My Way: Speeches and Poems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Chesney, Kellow. The Victorian Underworld. London: Temple Smith, 1970.
Cobbing, Bob.Where on earth did he make that comment about found and treated poetry?
De Bolla, Peter. Art Matters. Cambridge, Mass and London: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Rawes, Alan, ed. Romanticism and Form. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Reznikoff, Charles. Testimony: The United States 1885-1890: Recitative. New York: New Directions/San Francisco Review, 1965.
Seed, John. New and Collected Poems. Exeter: Shearsman, 2005a.
Seed, John. Pictures from Mayhew. Exeter: Shearsman, 2005b.
Seed, John. That Barrikins – Pictures from Mayhew II. Exeter: Shearsman, 2007.
Seed, John. Marx: A Guide for the Perplexed. London and New York: Continuum, 2010.
Wolfson, Susan J., and Brown, Marshall, eds. Reading for Form. Seatle and London: University of Washington Press, 2006.
Woods, Tim Woods. The Poetics of the Limit. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.
Zukofsky, Louis. Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1981.